Ali Tawfiq goes to visit his family's fields almost daily. He stands there and looks at the charred remains of what was once his daily work. He says it was shocking when he saw the palm trees burning and he believes that the fire was set deliberately.
And he is not the only one, he says. “Almost a dozen fields have been set on fire,” the 30-year-old local told NIQASH. “We don't have a definite answer as to who might be behind these acts or what their reasons are for burning our property. But we've heard that there are probably political reasons.”
There are fires like the one that claimed Tawfiq's crops started every month or two. And it seems that the arsonists are setting the fires to take advantage of the wind; they set the blaze so that the wind will carry it and destroy as much as possible.
Last week several major fires broke out in Badrah, around 200 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, with authorities estimating that about two hectares of land were burned. Badrah used to be famous for its dates. Local civil defence teams, together with local people, were able to put out the fires relatively quickly and before they reached neighbouring lands.
“The fires in Badrah are not accidental,” says another local farmer who wanted to be known only as Abu Hassan and who is in his 50s. “The way the fires are being set is systematic and they are being set by unknown people. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that a fire was set on one side of one orchard and then also on the other, to ensure the most damage.”
The strange phenomenon of Badrah's fires also seems to be an annual one, happening around the same time every year. Last year many fields there were burned in early May and 11 days later there was another similar farm fire.
“Most of the people here have abandoned their farms anyway because there is not enough water. Most of them now work with oil and other commercial companies who've come to this area,” adds Abu Hassan.
It is true that recently Badrah has had about eight fires in flourishing citrus and palm orchards, Badrah's mayor, Jafar Abdul-Sahib, confirms. Abdul-Sahib reports that local security forces were doing their best to find the perpetrators but that there seemed to be more than one arsonist, and it was difficult. Details had to reman confidential. “These crimes are destroying the economy of the city,” Abdul-Sahib said.
Many locals believe the arson has a political dimension. Members of Wasit's provincial council have accused other political parties of being behind the fires because the land is part of Iraq's so-called disputed territories. The disputed territories are land that the Iraqi Kurdish believe should belong to them but which the Arab-dominated government in Baghdad says are actually part of Iraq proper. Council member Mahdi al-Mousawi says that it benefits “some political parties” if these areas are unstable.
“If the security situation is unstable, it intimidates people,” al-Mousawi argued – although he would not name the parties. However locals reading between the lines recognise that he is accusing local Kurdish parties of trying to destabilize the area.
“We do not have any concrete evidence that any political party is involved in these incidents,” says Wasit's governor, Malik Khalaf. In fact, Khalaf believes the fires are being caused by the layout of the fields. “The main reasons behind these fires is negligence and the fact that farmers smoke water pipes out on the fields,” he concludes.
As Wasit's farmers watch their fields smoulder, it's hard to say if the truth will ever come out.